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You're never too late to improve on the job

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

As a child, you probably heard your parents say more than once that practice makes perfect -- especially when it came time to work on your trombone skills or free throws.

Many of us abandon the idea of practice being important as we get older. After all, who wants to admit they don't know everything and need to become better at something?

But that unwillingness to admit we need improvement may be holding us back from career success, Doug Lemov says.

Lemov, author of “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better” (Jossey-Bass, $26.95) with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi, contends that even those who are really good at something can improve with practice. To understand their point, just look at superstars such as Michael Jordan and Itzkak Perlman, both dedicated practicers even as they reached career pinnacles.

So how does practice translate into the everyday workplace? It's not like you're working on jump shots or mastering complicated violin solos, right?

But some things need improvement at work, and that's where practice comes in.

Lemov admits that he needs to improve his focus on work instead of being constantly distracted by checking his email. He says he knows he needs to practice staying on task and hopes to avoid the inbox for longer and longer periods as he practices such discipline.

Still, Lemov stresses that you can't practice any way you want and get desired results. Unless you commit to practicing correctly, you are destined to do a task in a subpar way over and over.

Say a boss gives you feedback on the way you complete a task. You get suggestions on how to do the task better, and you nod your head and say, “Sure, I'll think about it.”

But you don't.

Lemov says that is a classic example of practicing avoidance. Instead of trying to work the boss' way and seeking additional help to improve, you continue to do something wrong or in a way that keeps you from excelling.

In that case, Lemov says the boss should say, “You can reflect on the feedback later, but for right now I want you to try it.”

In their book, the authors make a number of suggestions on how individuals can embrace practicing to improve their performance on the job. Among them:

Find the real deal. Look for someone who is doing similar work in a similar context. Don't just observe this person doing a job but look at what the person does to get better — the practice he or she does to perform the job well.

Use practice to get creative. The more tasks you master and commit to muscle memory, the more time and energy you free up for generating creative ideas.

Many people say they come up with creative ideas while showering or walking the dog because they're able to think of other things while doing such tasks automatically. The more tasks you practice, the more automatic they will become, and the more time your brain will be free to wander.

Push yourself. Don't be willing to accept a certain proficiency that means you never make a mistake.

Be willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and take some calculated risks. That may mean practicing a difficult conversation with your boss about your career development or completing a task a bit faster every time you practice.

Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy ... and How to Avoid Them,” www.45things.com.

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